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“For most of us, chocolate is an indulgence synonymous with pleasure, but behind the sweet image of the cocoa bean there is a long history of exploitation, corruption, greed and slavery.”~ Bitter Chocolate, Carol Off

I didn’t plan to do a book review anytime soon but reading these two books for my dissertation to get background knowledge (Child Labour on Cocoa plantations in Cote D’Ivoire and the Harkin-Engel Protocol), was an eye-opener for me. If you are interested in gaining new knowledge or knowing more about the chocolate industry, where most of the cocoa produce come from, as well as situation of the producers, you might want to take a look at both ‘Bitter Chocolate: Investigating the Dark Side of the World’s Most Seductive Sweet’ by Carol Off (2006) and ‘Chocolate Nations: Living and Dying for Cocoa in West Africa’ by Orla Ryan (2011). They have their shortcomings (check out academic reviews on them) but you gain an insightful knowledge on certain alarming issues. The issue of dirty politics and exploitation (in all forms) in Africa, Latin America and other parts of the world today is not new to most of us but there are people who are not aware of the rate at which these things happen. I like chocolate but I never thought such sweet treat could have a twisted dark tale to its existence till I started doing my readings. I try so hard not think that our world isn’t messed up but the sickening truth is that it is and the denial of certain atrocities is saddening.

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Carol Off’s Bitter Chocolate: Investigating the Dark Side of the World’s Most Seductive Sweet is an absorbing and sweeping book. It takes you into the world of the cash crop—Theobroma also known as cocoa and its origin. It also entails saddening detailed accounts of how Cote D’Ivoire (dubbed Africa’s El Dorado once upon a time) degenerated to war and xenophobia (2002), child labour exploitation/trafficking as well as its highly corrupted cocoa industry and government. The multinational chocolate companies (the likes of Hershey, Cadbury) are not left out from the scrutiny as they try to exclude themselves from the situation. Blame game and denials replace responsibility. The Harkin-Engel protocol (2001) signed by major chocolatiers in response to the issue of child labour on cocoa plantations is also mentioned in the book as well as some details on its progress and shortcomings, its supporters and critics. Even in the face of fluctuating prices of cocoa on the international market, multinational companies make more money than ever compared to the mere pittance the farmers make from selling their produce. Most who slave for cocoa have never tasted the finished product. Cocoa, on one hand is life for those who are able to manipulate the system and use its funds for their selfish needs, on the other hand cocoa is death for those who try to trace the money gotten (the disappearance of Guy-Andre Kieffer—the guy who knew too much), children who suffer doing back breaking jobs on cocoa plantations with little or no pay and farmers who survive hand to mouth despite the fact that they are principal actors in the production of one of the key ingredients (cocoa) needed to make one of the best selling product in the world –Chocolate.

“Chocolate, no matter what the cost in the candy store, had a hidden price in human misery.”~ Bitter Chocolate, Carol Off
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Orla Ryan’s ‘Chocolate Nations: Living and Dying for Cocoa in West Africa’ which also touches on similar issues mentioned in Off’s book is another good investigation on the issue. The book vividly explores the reasons behind farmers’ poverty as well as child labour exploitation in Cote D’Ivoire and Ghana (both cocoa producing countries). Moreover, by arguing that all initiatives aimed to reduce child labour that do not also seek to reduce poverty are doomed to failure. However her standpoint has been questioned and criticized for being biased and one sided as she focuses more on the problems caused by internal factors whilst watering down the problems caused by international or external bodies (such as the IMF and World Bank) but regardless it has some valid points.

“Fear of a ban on cocoa exports has made producers expert at keeping children out of sight. But little progress has been made in tackling the underlying causes of child labour”~ Chocolate Nations, Órla Ryan



According to UNICEF, ‘an estimated 246 million children are engaged in child labour’ (UNICEF, 2004) in different sectors (from agriculture to mining) of which most are below the age of 15.



Muhsinat Kamardeen